“We all know what happened in Germany in the early and middle nineteen’forties. We all know; it’s taught in schools, joked about in comedy clubs, referenced in works of literature both fiction and nonfiction; I think it’s safe to say that the events which occurred in Germany during the second world war are firmly ingrained into the mind of the overall human consciousness. It happened, it really fucking happened, and everybody knows it.
“What everybody does’t know, however, is what happened to a whole lot of the participants – hosts, I should say – of Germany’s big bad Nazi party. I wasn’t around back then so I don’t know this first-hand, but I have to assume that while it was happening, it was kept out of the eye of the general American public. I’m talking about Operation Paperclip, and if you haven’t heard about it, it was a massive buyout conducted by the yoU-eSs government that occurred roughly between nineteen’forty-five and nineteen’fifty-nine. I use the word buyout metaphorically, because technically, the purchasing of this specific type of cargo was widely outlawed in eighteen’thirty-three… let me just get to the point. Using the excuse of not wanting their minds to fall into the wrong hands, the United States government saved more than fifteen hundred ex-Nazi scientists, engineers, and technicians from the execution they deserved and employed them right here in the states. Some worked for independent contractors, some went on to work for NASA – actually, a fuckin’ lot of them went on to work for NASA – and some of them – a very select some, but some nonetheless – were given government funding to independently continue their work on science projects they originally started under Hitler’s watchful guidance.
“It was a legitimate enough concern at the time, I guess, what with communist Russia and the Cold War threatening to heat up into the third installment of a trilogy that no human being, no matter what they might say, really wanted to experience. Had the Russians procured the Nazis – had they procured America’s Nazis in addition to the Nazis they procured on their own, I should say – nobody knows how the course of history might have changed. On the whole, even though the deed was about as dirty as it gets, Op’ Paperclip was a good move. God works in mysterious ways, as the faithful preach and the faithless jest over brews and burnt herbs; sometimes bad things just have to happen to prevent worse things from happening, and sometimes, bad things have to happen for good things to happen, too. I know these aren’t easy concepts to grapple with and accept, but I want you to know, Doctor, that I understand them. I might only be a Sophomore in high school, but I understand them. I’m not here seeing you because I’m crazy, I’m here seeing you because I’m hoping you will understand.
“The fact of the matter is that I did not kill my brother David. Yes, I was the last one who was with him before he disappeared; yes, both of us went deep into the woods to go fishing and only I came out; yes, we took a backpack with us that the cops couldn’t find, and there was a knife in that backpack, a knife I was holding when I got back to the house. But I didn’t kill him.”
“Please, Cooper, you can call me Mister Williamson,” Mister Williamson says without looking up from his notepad. He’s a fast writer but not that fast – Cooper is talking at a mile a minute, and though Mister Williamson was the best taker of notes in all of his classes from elementary school through college, nobody speaks quite as fast as a teenager with a conspiracy theory haunting their mind. “Even Hilter would be fine, really; I am a world-renowned researcher of the mind, and I’m not insecure about it, either. I do not need to be called Doctor to feel like I am doing my job.”
Cooper stressfully runs his hand from his forehead to the back of his scalp, as if to smooth out his crew cut. “Okay, Hilter. I didn’t kill my older brother, Hilter. Do you believe me? Hilter?”
Hilter’s pen stops moving for a half-second at the words older brother – David is not the first older brother who once lived on this street to disappear, and in the back of his mind, Hilter believes there may be a pattern forming – but he continues writing before Cooper can notice he’s stopped. “I do believe you.” He finishes filling out the first page of his notepad, flips it over to reveal the second page, writes two sentences, then clicks his pen. “Believe it or not, I am very familiar with the murderer type, and I am more than sure that you are not one. And for the record, I’d like to state that I spoke with both of your parents and they don’t believe you killed your older brother, either. They’re just worried about you, Cooper. They think you saw something you couldn’t understand – something you didn’t want to understand, I should say – and so they thought it would be a good idea for you to come and speak to me. Do you understand?”
“Yes, I do understand,” Cooper growls, folding his arms tight against his chest. “I understand that it’s them, it’s my parents who don’t want to understand what happened. It’s so easy for them to tell me what goes on in my head, it’s so easy for them to talk about what happened down by the lake, but they weren’t there. Only me and David were there, and I saw what happened to him. I know how my brother died, and it’s not what they think happened.”
“All right,” Hilter states calmly, clicking his pen and bringing the point to his notepad. “Before we proceed, I’d like to offer this one more time: would you like to carry out the remainder of this appointment in a different location? I own all of the houses on this road now, and I understand tha–”
“No,” Cooper says flatly. “I’m glad we’re here. I didn’t want my family to move, especially not in the hurry that we did. If we just stayed living in this house, everything would have been fine. I wouldn’t be so depressed.” He broods for a moment and lowers his eyes to the floor. In his mind, Cooper recites the first few lines of his favorite song to bring himself into focus. Then, he says, “I don’t want to talk about this anywhere else.”
“Very well,” said with a nod. “Then please tell me, who killed your brother?”
“It’s not a who, Hilter,” Cooper says without looking up. “It’s a what.”
“Apologies, my mistake,” as Hilter’s grip on the pen tightens. “What killed David?”
Cooper looks up with a face so grave it could be carved into a tombstone, and slowly utters the words, “The Serpent.”
You Don’t Know
“What you might not know, Hilter – in fact, I can guarantee you don’t know about this, because you’re new in this town and all – but Treeburg was on the receiving end of some of the Nazis who came over as part of Operation Paperclip. Have you ever taken a drive down Stonetown Road before?”
“I have not,” says Hilter. “I’m more the type to go for a walk than to just take a drive. But let’s say I have – what are you hoping I would have noticed?”
“Well…” Cooper rubs the back of his head. “Well, even if you had, you still probably wouldn’t know about this. Okay, so down at the far end of Stonetown Road, past the turnoff point that takes you across the Wanaque Reservoir to Treeburg Ave in Wanaque and Haskull, if you keep following it, there’s a street called Snake Den Road.”
“Snake like a serpent?” Hilter asks inquisitively.
This catches Cooper off guard. “Uh… yeah, sure. If you want. I think that’s just a coincidence.”
“And a convenient one at that,” Hilter says, dropping a wink. Cooper lets that wink drop right to the floor. “I’m merely amused at the coincidence, that’s all. Life is very ironic that way, like how my first and middle names are Hilter Odolf and you’re telling me about a Nazi theory. Anyway, please, continue.”
Cooper slowly takes a deep breath. “Oh-kay. So there’s Snake Den Road. If you follow that road all the way to its end, you’ll come across a really weird house that’s shaped like half a tin can, it’s like a really tiny airplane hangar. It’s painted purple, and like, everything about it is purple, too; purple plants, purple car, purple lawn ornaments. I’m pretty sure the lady who lives there even has purple hair. There was a rumor in school that she’s a witch who fled here way back in the sixteen’hundreds to escape the Salem witch trials…”
Hilter raises his eyebrows.
“…but I don’t know if I believe that. Folks are just kooky back here in the Treeburg woods, and the deeper into the forest you go, the kookier the folks get. Anyway, just past that house is a big dirt parking lot. The parking lot – and most of the woodlands past that purple tin can house, too – belongs to the Weis Ecology Center. Have you heard of it?”
Hilter scribbles for moment. Once he’s caught up, “I believe I’ve heard the name. It sounds familiar enough, at least.”
“It’s been in town for a long time. Since the nineteen’fifties, I’m pretty sure.”
“Ah, I see what you’re getting at.”
“Then let me get there,” Cooper injects shortly. Hilter raises his hands as if to say I surrender. “The Operation Paperclip Nazis all came over in the nineteen’fifties. Before that, Snake Den Road ended right at Weis; after that, the road was continued and a bunch of houses were built so the Paperclipped Nazis could have a place to live. Like I said before, a very select few of those Paperclipees were given funding to continue the work they were doing under Adolf Hitler’s regime. One of those select few got to live here in Treeburg – the government wanted to space them out across the country, y’know? So they’d be harder to find. That’s why they picked Treeburg, this backwoods-ass town is about as secluded as it gets.
“So the special Nazi scientist – let’s just call him Doctor Weis, for argument’s sake – he set up shop at the end of Snake Den Road and continued his work. Now, what was he working on? It must have been pretty important, yanno? Pretty unique in order for the yoU-eSs government to give him funding to keep working on it. Otherwise, he would have just been sent to NASA or something. You following me?”
Hilter Odolf Williamson nods his head to indicate that he is following Cooper down this road as it goes deeper and deeper into the kooky Treeburg woods.
“I think Doctor Weis was doing something with genes. Like, gene splicing, genetic alteration. Making mutants, in other words. Another thing you don’t know about Treeburg… well, about the whole country, probably, because this stuff is pretty secret, I only know about it because of a YouTube channel I watch; there’s this crazy underground tunnel system beneath the entire country that the government uses to move supplies and secret technology and important leaders and stuff like that around without being noticed. They connect to all the major cities, all the important army bases – the secret army bases too, like eSs-Four and Area Fifty-One – and if you dig really deep into the Freedom of Information Act section of the Cee-I-Aye’s website, you’ll find maps of where the tunnels go, and more importantly, where they open up to the surface world. And guess what?”
Hilter knows what Cooper is going to say, but he doesn’t say it out loud. If anything, he guesses that Cooper’s question is likely rhetorical. And guess what? He’s right about that, too.
“One tunnel runs directly underneath Treeburg, specifically underneath the Wanaque Reservoir. And, get this, Hilter: there’s actually a smaller annex-sorta tunnel that branches off from the one underneath the Wanaque, and do you know where that leads?”
Cooper is on the edge of his seat now, holding on to the arms of the chair for dear life.
“Right to the Nazi neighborhood back at the end of Snake Den Road. I never went back there when we lived in town because me and David had Owen Johnson’s trails to explore and stuff, but I bet if we went back there and took the map and drove to where the annex tunnel ends, we’d probably come up to a house. That’s the house where Doctor Weis lived, or maybe still lives! He probably keeps his lab in the annex tunnel because these tunnels are huge, you could have multiple fighter jets driving through there wing-to-wing and still have room to walk around. I think that Doctor Weis created The Serpent in his lab, because… I know you didn’t see the thing, but I did, and it wasn’t real. I mean, it was real, it killed my fucking brother, but… it wasn’t natural. There’s no fucking way it could have evolved on its own, not in the fuckin’ Wanaque. Oh, another thing you probably don’t know – nobody’s allowed to fish in the Wanaque. They used to sell permits, but they don’t anymore; nowadays, if you’re even caught walking through the woods around the reservoir, you’re liable to be gunned down. The guards who patrol it are armed with semi-automatic military rifles. Now, ask yourself, Mister Williamson – Hilter – why would the government try so hard to keep the general population out of a local lake? I’ll tell you why – because it’s not just a lake. It’s a fucking enclosure, they know The Serpent is in there and they’re trying to keep it secret. I don’t know what they plan to do with it, but… but going off how effortlessly it killed my brother, I’d say they’re probably trying to weaponize it. That’s always what our Goddamned government does with everything good in this world, isn’t it? They always try to fucking weaponize it.”
Cooper’s heart is beating at twice its normal rate. Veins have popped out on both of his temples, and Hilter can see that they’re beginning to throb.
“My parents don’t listen to a word I say, they don’t fucking believe any of this, but I know it’s true, I saw The Motherfucking Serpent with my own two fucking eyes and it fuckiNG KILLED DAVID! THE FUCKING MONSTER KILLED DAVID AND NOBODY FUCKING BELIEVES ME! NOBODY WANTS TO FUCKING BELIEVE ME! THEY’D RATHER BELIEVE THAT HE FUCKING COMMITTED SUICIDE IN FRONT OF ME, BUT HE WOULD NEVER DO THAT!”
Hilter has stopped writing at this point. He’s sitting calmly in his chair with his hands folded over his notepad.
“IT’S SO FUCKING EASY FOR MY FUCKING PARENTS TO TELL ME WHAT FUCKING HAPPENS WHEN THEY’RE NOT THERE, IT’S SO GODDAMNED EASY FOR THEM TO SPEAK ON SHIT THAT THEY DON’T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT, BUT YOU KNOW WHAT? YOU KNOW WHAT I TELL THEM? I TELL THEM YOU DON’T KNOW! And then they fucking get mad at me! They think I’m fucking crazy, but I, but, but I have a fucking better fucking grip on fucking reality than they do! They’re fucking delusional, they’re in fucking denial!”
“And you don’t know either, Hilter! You don’t fucking know what happened to David! You weren’t fucking there with us, you just fucking moved into town! This is a weird fucking place Hilter, weird fucking things happen in Treeburg, New Jersey, and you’re just a Goddamned psychologist, you get paid to tell your psycho patients they’re crazy, oh you’re so high and fucking mighty. You don’t know what really happened to David and I do, but you won’t fucking listen to me! Nobody fucking listens!”
Cooper stands up and whips a pillow across the room. Then, he goes to the end table between his chair and the couch, the table he and David would put the plates holding their Sunday morning breakfast when they were kids and they’d watch cartoons together, and he draws his right leg back and kicks it so hard that not only do one of the legs snap in half, but Cooper spills himself out on the hardwood floor.
“COOPER!” Mister Williamson shouts in a voice louder than Cooper thought the doctor capable of. “That’s enough, Cooper! You sit back in that chair and calm down or this session is over! I will let you yell, I will let you curse, I will let you vent your rage all you want, but I will not allow you to destroy my property. That is unacceptable, do you understand?!”
Rather than getting back in his chair, Cooper gets up and paces back and forth across the room, his face boiling redder by the step.
“Fine, pace around, then!” shouts Hilter. “You know fucking wh–” then he stops himself. With closed eyes, Hilter slowly draws a deep breath through his nose, holds it, then lets it lazily puff out between his lips. He then opens his eyes and sees that Cooper has stopped pacing around. “I apologize for raising my voice like that, Cooper. May I tell you something that you don’t know?”
Cooper nods his currently pale and blank face.
“I am not a normal human being. I have a mild schizophrenia spectrum disorder – in our current context, what that means is that I am very perceptive of the emotions of others. When somebody displays an emotion very strongly around me, I have the tendency of contracting that emotion. It’s sort of like seeing someone yawn and then yawning yourself – hell, sometimes all I need to do is write the word yawn and it’ll make me yawn – but regardless, it was very unprofessional of me to raise my voice at you like that. I am sorry.”
It seems as though Cooper doesn’t know what to do. Usually when he starts yelling at his parents they just scream right back, except they’re a lot louder and a lot meaner than Cooper is. They don’t understand that Cooper isn’t yelling to be mean, they don’t know how Cooper’s brain works. Sometimes he just gets carried away, he can’t always help it. They don’t know that though, they just think he was born an angry boy and he’ll always be angry for his whole life. They’ve never said sorry before, either.
Cooper sits down in the chair across from Mister Williamson and puts his hands in his lap. His shoulders are slumped and he’s looking down at his feet. A few moments of silence pass, then he feels a hand on his shoulder.
“This is, eh… this is the first time you’ve been back to your neighborhood since your family moved away, isn’t it, Cooper?”
Cooper nods his head without looking up.
“I have to imagine that with all the commotion and stress of moving, you never got much of a chance to properly say goodbye to David.”
“He didn’t kill himself,” Cooper mumbles, still looking at his feet. “The police would have found his body if he had. He didn’t kill himself.”
Hilter gently pats Cooper on the shoulder a few times. Then, “Listen, Cooper. Normally I wouldn’t suggest this for any of my other patients, but your case is rather special. Unique, in a word. You and David spent a lot of time back in the woods behind the pond up the street, correct?”
“Yeah,” Cooper says, finally looking up. Not up at Hilter’s face, but up from his feet. “In the woods all around Fricker. Owen Johnson made a lot of trails.”
“So I’ve heard. And the last memory you have of the woods around Fricker is a not so good one, to say the least. It’s almost lunch time now, and normally I’d end the session here, but like I said: I believe your case is unique. So, here is what I suggest: why don’t you go and take a walk back in the woods. Go down to the reservoir if you’d like, or stay in the shallower parts, whatever you want. I’ll order us some food when you’re gone, and when you get back, we can continue our session. Is that… does that sound fair?”
Cooper is looking up at Hilter now. “Yeah… I think I’d like that. Thank you, Mister Williamson.” He hops out of his seat and starts towards the front door. “I won’t be gone too long.”
“Well, you don’t know that,” Hilter says jokingly, but when he sees the look of contempt on Cooper’s face, he course corrects with, “I’m sorry, bad sense of humor. I only mean to say you can take as long as you’d like. I don’t have any other appointments scheduled for the day.”
The frown doesn’t turn to a smile, but it doesn’t stay a frown either. “All right… thanks.” Cooper quickly shuffles out the door.
Hilter falls onto the couch in a heap. “Christ, Hilter. What the hell is wrong with you? That was totally… ah well, it seems to be smoothed out now.” He reaches over for the phone on his end table that still has all four of its legs, then dials the number of Cooper’s mom. He tells her the session is going well and that he’d like to extend it into the evening if that’s at all possible, and of course it is, Cooper’s mom is thrilled to hear that a psychologist is actually getting through to Cooper, and the fact that he’s spending a day away from his dark bedroom and his angry music only thrills her more.
After the phone call, Hilter takes out his laptop and orders a pizza for delivery, then he begins to do some research on the Weis Ecology Center Cooper was talking about. What he finds surprises him – the facility has been around for a long time, even longer than Cooper is aware of, in fact – but there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of a Nazi presence in the area. Although, that specific information probably wouldn’t be displayed on the front page of the facility’s website. What you don’t know can’t hurt you, as they say, and so Hilter continues his digging long into the afternoon.
The pizza is cold by the time Cooper returns to his old house, but that’s all right. At that point, Cooper doesn’t have much of an appetite left anyway.
Womphus black flies buzz in a loose circle above Cooper’s head like buzzards over a piece of roadkill. Coincidentally enough, like buzzards to roadkill, the flies are attracted to Cooper by the stench rising in invisible plumes from his body, mostly from his armpits. He walked his way up Fricker Drive – running down The Hill of the Neverending Stride is one thing, but to run up it? Such requires a certain level of unhingedness Cooper has yet to attain, despite what his parents might think or say – and he planned on taking a slow, somber walk down to the reservoir, but things didn’t exactly go according to his plan. He was walking slowly as he traded the concrete walkway along the pond for the mouth of the old logging road, and when he passed the beginning of The Dirtbiker’s Path he was definitely doing a power walk, but then he got to the rocky hill and his feet took on a mind of their own, luring him into a run. Then, suddenly, Cooper found himself laying in the dirt down by the Wanaque Reservoir, at the same spot where he and David took their last fishing trip. The spot where they met a horrifying lake monster called The Serpent. The spot where Cooper lost his dad’s fishing backpack, which has apparently been stolen by somebody as it’s no longer lying in the spot Cooper left it when he fled. The spot where David’s life was stolen along with that backpack.
Cooper groans as he lifts himself up into a sitting position. He looks left down the shoreline, then right down the shoreline. The lazy waves of the Wanaque Reservoir lap up against the sandy shores, although the sand is more pebbles than sand. Once, when Cooper was still really young, he and David came down here and tried to build castles out of the pebbles. They failed spectacularly, but it was still fun. David made it fun, David always knew how to make things fun, even when Cooper was angry. Especially when Cooper was angry. But now…
“Ugh,” Cooper groans, letting his head fall back into the dirt. “Why’d I even come down here… to remember David? I don’t need to be at the place he died to remember David. I’m constantly remembering David. This is just making it worse…”
A thought appears in Cooper’s mind, something that Mister Williamson said earlier on,‘Life is very ironic.’ Yeah, it sure is – Cooper thought that being hurriedly taken out of his environment following the death of his brother was the thing that made coping with said death so hard, but now that he’s been back in his old house, now that he’s back at the spot where The Serpent came out of the water and grabbed David? It’s only about two thousand times harder. Hard like iron; if that’s not ironic, Cooper doesn’t know what is.
“All right now, get up, Cooper,” Cooper says to himself after slapping the seventh mosquito to land on his left arm alone. “We came, we saw, we were conquered. We might as well go back and finish the therapy session.”
Cooper gets up, but doesn’t immediately start walking back. One look at that tall, steep hill he’ll have to climb – the hill David didn’t want to climb, the hill that made him take his last cast, the cast that hooked The Serpent, ‘Why couldn’t he have just climbed the hill?’ – convinces Cooper to take one last look at the water. Just for the hell of it, ya know? He’s pretty hot and sweaty too, it would feel good to rinse some of the yuck off his face before he walks back and gets all sweaty again.
And so he does go to the water’s edge, he strips his shoes and socks off and wades in up to his ankles, then to his shins, then his knees even though the cuffs of his shorts get a little wet. Cooper doesn’t mind it. In fact, he doesn’t even think of it – he doesn’t think of anything, his mind is totally blank, his gaze captured by something hidden underneath the water.
Cooper, forgetting he’s wearing clothes at all, dives right in and opens his eyes to the sting of the reservoir’s somewhat clear water. The thing’s not very deep – maybe sixish feet down, maybe eight – but it’s not the dive that gives Cooper a challenge. It’s the glowing thing itself, he’s wrestling with it but it seems to be stuck to the bottom of the lake, if only he had… his dad’s knife! Cooper reaches into his right pocket, which proves to be a challenge in and of itself because of the water and all, but finds nothing. It must have fallen out during his tantrum at the doctor’s house, or maybe when he was running down here. It doesn’t matter – well, it does matter, but not too much compared to the torturous burning which consumes his lungs like rage in the heart of a misunderstood child. He can’t wrestle anymore, he has to come up for air.
Cooper breaks the surface and treads water, angrily punching and slapping the surface. “Fuck!” he shouts, “Why did I have to fucking drop the knife?! Fuck!” He backstrokes a few feet then looks down – the glowing thing is still there, still glowing beneath the surface. If the thing is what Cooper thinks it is, he can’t be in this water too much longer, otherwise… he doesn’t want to think about otherwise.
“Okay, calm it down,” Cooper says to himself. “Remember, sometimes bad things have to happen so good things can happen. If I had the knife I might break the thing. I just have to try again.”
Taking in a massive lungful of air, Cooper dives down to the glowing thing and wriggles his fingers beneath its base. The thing itself is smooth and hard like a big river stone, but the gunk it’s attached to is… well, it’s definitely not hard. It’s got a shape to it, but it’s… it’s so slimy and gunky and sort of squishy, but like… not. It’s so blegh, so disgustingly blegh. It’s like one of those nasty floating dull-orange egg-sack-lookin’ bryozoan colony shits that he sometimes sees when he swims in Treeburg’s other lakes, the things that look like they came from another plan–
The glowing thing pops out of its gross cradle with a thuncc. Holding it under one arm, Cooper swims for the surface and then for shore. When he’s at least twenty feet onto land he falls to his knees and sets the glowing thing down to catch his breath. It’s a lot heavier out of the water, but he thinks he can carry it. He might have trouble getting up that hill, but it’ll be worth it.
Before Cooper picks the thing back up, he takes a moment to examine it. It’s shaped sort of like a football, except the corners are significantly more rounded, and it’s about twice the size of a normal football. It’s mostly translucent, like colorless gelatin but blurry, and the outside is thick and tough. It has a pulsating orange core, too, a core which glows like the rising sun.
“Oh yeah, I know exactly what you are,” Cooper says between pants of caught breath as he swivels the thing around in his hands so he can get a good look at it. “You’re an egg, and your mom is a fuckin’ bitch.”
Speaking of said fuckin’ bitch, Cooper doesn’t want to give it a chance to find its nest empty while he’s still down here. He takes his shirt off and drapes it over the egg like he was dressing it, then he pushes the egg over and grabs his shirt by the bottom hem and cautiously lifts it. The top of the egg pokes out of the collar a little bit, like a grown adult trying to fit his head through the collar of a toddler’s sweater, but it stays snug. Still… Cooper doesn’t quite trust that. Leaving the shirt on the egg, Cooper picks it up with both hands and starts jogging up the steep hill.
When he’s halfway up the hill, Cooper hears what can only be described as a banshee’s wail, a terrible scream that he’s heard only once before, that can only be made by one specific monster, and as far as Cooper is aware, banshees don’t exist. Cooper sprints up the hill with all his might, and when he crests it, he sprints over the plateau between the two mountains, he sprints down the old logging road, he sprints until his feet are numb; he sprints so fast that he doesn’t even realize he misses the righthand turn at the swampy junction he needed to take to get back to Fricker. Cooper just keeps sprinting and sprinting and sprinting, and he doesn’t stop until he comes to the clearing at the end of the stretch of the old logging road he never explored before. It’s not the unfamiliar woods that stop him, nor is it the old ratty shack standing at the end of the road. No, it’s the man staring at him out the little dirty window next to the moldy plywood door of the ratty shack. The man in the black ski mask with eyes far more bulbous and hollow than that of The Goddamned Fucking Serpent. Cooper wants to turn and leave, he wants to run far, far away, but his legs are grape jelly, his feet are concrete blocks, his heart is a jackhammer in his chest. He barely has the sense left to breathe.
The man’s head disappears from the window. The door opens with a sinister creak. Aside from the ski mask, the man wears no clothing. His flabby body is slathered in mud and leaves, his teeth are browner than said mud. He slowly walks across the clearing towards Cooper, whose knees are threatening to buckle and bring him to the ground. Then he would never escape the man. Then the man wouldn’t even have to chase after Cooper to have his way with him.
The man stops when he’s six inches away from Cooper. The smell pouring off his muddy body is utterly atrocious. Cooper’s eyes begin to water, and he wants to look away, but if he does, the man might make a dirty play, so he’s looking up at the man’s head. If he brings his gaze down he’ll see that which he’ll never unsee, and then his eyes wouldn’t be watering from just the smell. Then Cooper would be crying, and he might never stop crying. The man might like his crying.
“Watchu got?” the man asks in the voice of a hippopotamus. He reaches low and takes the egg out of Cooper’s hands, then rips the shirt off it and gives it back to Cooper. “Looks like beck’fust. Thanks buh-dy.” The man pats Cooper on the head like a dog, then turns around and goes back into his ratty shack, letting the moldy door slam loudly behind him. The sound of thin wood slapping thicker wood seems to break Cooper from the trance; the boy turns around and darts back down the wide trail, not even bothering to put his shirt back on.
After taking the turn – now a lefthand turn, and never mind the mud he runs through, Cooper just needs to get the fuck out of these fucking Fricker woods so he can never come back – Cooper picks up his speed and doesn’t stop running until he gets back to his old house on Fricker Drive. He ran so fast that his pace didn’t pick up going down The Hill of the Neverending Stride, and can you blame him? He saw a monster in the forest today, a monster far worse than the one he was expecting to see.
A bombardment of knocking rips Hilter away from his computer screen. He sets the laptop on the pizza box sitting on the couch cushion beneath his legs and stands up, cracks his stiff back, then hobbles over to the front door. The knocking doesn’t stop until he answers it, and Cooper nearly flattens him to the ground with the force of his entry.
“I wanna go home, Mister Williamson,” Cooper squeals in a short, high-pitched burst. “I don’t wanna… I don’t… I wanna go home. I shouldn’t have come here, this was a bad idea. I’m going to be okay, I’m going to get over David. I want to go home.”
Hilter closes the front door and guides Cooper into the living room. “Cooper, please calm down. I got us a chicken bacon ranch pizza, it’s cold but I can warm up a couple slices for you, if you’d like. I–”
“I’m not hungry, I-I want to go home. I need to get out of here. Bad things happen so good things can happen, and that’s okay. I understand that now, I’m not going to come back. I shouldn’t have come back, I–”
The beeping of a dialed phone number cuts Cooper off. “All right, I’m calling your folks right now. It’s about a half hour drive to get here from Haskull though, so you’re going to have to wait regardless. Are you… what can I do for you, Cooper? You’re very distressed.”
Cooper, sitting on the chair to the left of the couch, the one next to the broken end table, brings his knees up to his chest and hugs them tightly. He says nothing.
Hilter sighs heartily, then presses the call button on his phone. The ensuing chat with Cooper’s mom is very short – yes, Cooper is fine, the session went about as expected, he’s all ready to come home now – and when he hangs up the phone, he notices how wet Cooper’s clothing is.
“Cooper, what happened to your clothes?” But Cooper just keeps breathing hard through his nose, Cooper keeps rocking back and forth in the chair, the cushion of which is now very muddy. “All right, ehm… I’m going to warm up a few slices of the pizza anyway, okay? If you don’t want it when it’s warm, then I’ll just eat it. Please don’t go anywhere.”
Cooper watches Hilter slowly pick up the pizza box from the couch. His eyes follow the doctor as he walks into the kitchen, then they linger at the doorway; when Hilter comes back through, Cooper’s gaze is waiting for him. Hilter sits down on the chair across the room from Cooper and takes his notepad and pen from the end table.
“Look, Cooper, I ehm… I know I shouldn’t have yelled at you before. I probably shouldn’t have let you go for that walk either, but–”
“Not that.” Cooper says flatly into his knees. Hilter relaxes a bit and waits for Cooper to continue, and after a few minutes, he does. “Not… not your fault. I… do you have my knife?”
“Your knife?” Hilter asks, confused.
“My dad’s old knife. The one my parents thought I used to kill David. I always carry it with me now, but I didn’t have it in the woods. I needed it in the woods but I didn’t have it. Did you take it?”
“I most certainly did not,” Hilter says, his voice laced with concern. “Why did you need the knife in the woods?”
“Because,” he says, then snaps his jaws shut. He almost said it, he almost just out and said it.
“Because…? You can tell me, Cooper. I won’t share it with your parents, it won’t leave this room.”
“You won’t believe me,” Cooper states as fact.
“Do I need to, though? I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but I have another patient who believes he sees genies whenever he lights incense products. I don’t judge him for it, I don’t try to tell him he’s wrong. For all I know, he really has made contact with the genies, or djinns, as he calls them. It’s important that we don’t bottle things up inside, Cooper. Please, tell me what happened in the woods.”
Cooper looks left and then right, as if checking to make sure nobody else is in the house. “Fine. I um… I went back down… wait.” Cooper climbs down from the chair and gets on his hands and knees to look beneath it. He reaches his hand into the dusty darkness beneath the chair and pulls it out in a closed fist, then climbs back up.
Hilter smiles. “Find your knife?”
Cooper clicks the blade open and holds the slim black grip tight in his right hand, with the blade on the pinky side, like David showed him. David said that’s how a knife fighter holds a knife. “Yeah. Okay… so I went back down where The Serpent grabbed David. I thought it would make me feel better to be down there, but it didn’t. I just felt worse and alone. But I ran all the way there and I was really sweaty, so I waded into the water to cool down… oh my God.”
“What, what’s wrong?”
“I forgot my shoes by the lake.”
A moment of silent passes, as neither of them really know what to say. Then, Cooper ventures, “Fuck it, whatever. I’m never going back in those woods.”
“Cooper, your mom is going to–”
“Fuck my mom.” He grips the knife tighter. “I don’t care, I’ll just make something up. She wouldn’t believe me if I told her the truth, anyway.”
Hilter makes a scribble in his notepad. “All right, if you wish. Now, you waded into the water…”
“Yeah, I was wading in the water, and then I saw this… thing. This glowing thing.” Cooper lets his feet fall to the floor, but he keeps his grip on the knife. “It was attached to the lakebed, maybe seven feet under the water. It was really stuck there, if I had the knife I probably could have cut it loose really easily, but I might have broken it, too. It doesn’t really matter though – look, I found The Serpent’s egg. It’s real, Hilter, I’m telling you The Serpent is real, and it’s reproducing. I don’t know how, maybe Doctor Weis gave it the ability to reproduce asexually like Komodo dragons.”
Choosing not to delve into all the information he learned about the Weis Ecology Center and the surrounding woodlands today – including the fact that the center was originally a farm owned by a family with the last name of Carrigan, that it’s been around since the eighteen’hundreds. that it’s had many’a moniker since then, and that the whole Nazi neighborhood theory is just a rumor that was allegedly started by a certain blogger who’s a fan of the color purple in an attempt to drown out the rumors about herself being a witch – Hilter says, “Komodo dragons reproduce asexually?”
“Yes, they do… sometimes. But that’s not the important part. I found The Serpent’s egg and I took it out of the lake, but The Serpent knew.”
“I heard its scream. It made the same noise before it ate David, this horrible, ear-splitting scream… it knows the egg was taken, but I was pretty far away from the water when it found out. I still ran though, I wasn’t about to take any chances.” He looks at the knife. “Not without this.” He looks at Hilter, then, “Do you believe me? I was so scared with the egg alone that I didn’t even think to put my shoes back on before I left. You believe me, don’t you?”
Hilter says nothing, just keeps writing in his notepad. Then, “I’ll give my views at the end. You don’t have the egg with you now, so I must presume you lost it – what happened?”
The corners of Cooper’s mouth rise up in tiny curls. They’re almost unnoticeable, but they sure are there. Then, as he continues recounting the events of his final walk through the woods around Fricker Drive, his mouth falls back to a frown. “I ran along the old logging road, and I was going really fast. Like really, really fast – David was a really good trail runner and he taught me how to do it, but I guess I was so afraid of The Serpent that I wasn’t paying attention to where I was going. And I uh, I missed a turn and just kept going, and the trail brought me to a shack.”
“A shack…?” Hilter asks.
“Yeah, a uh… an old ratty shack with a moldy plywood door. And there was… there was a guy living inside it. A creepy guy. He was wearing a ski mask–”
Time seems to freeze as Hilter’s mind flashes to the notes he took during his second session with Scotty Mells, the patient who sees the djinns – in a dream, Scotty saw a despicably similar ratty shack set far back into the woods, a ratty shack that was occupied by a man wearing a ski mask.
“–and nothing else. His body was… it was fuckin’… I don’t even wanna talk about it. But he took the egg from me. He said it looked like breakfast. No, not breakfast; he said beck’fust. If I had the knife I could have fought him, maybe I could’ve saved the egg, but…” Cooper’s holding the knife so tightly in his hand that his knuckles are white, but still he tries to grip it harder. The knife is the only thing that makes him feel safe anymore. “But I guess he might have hurt me… or… or worse…” Cooper gulps down a wad of thoughts he’d rather not think about. “The man took the egg and gave me back my shirt and I ran, Hilter, I ran back here as fast as I could. I didn’t even think to put my shirt back on until I was in the front yard.”
“Why did you have your shirt off?”
Cooper’s grip on the knife loosens a bit. “Because I was using it to carry the egg. It was heavy.”
A moment of the point of Hilter’s pen scraping against paper is followed by a moment of tension so dense that Cooper’s ears begin to ring.
Then, “Well Cooper, I’ll have to make this quick because your mom will be here soon.” He sets his notepad down on the end table and folds his hands, resting them on his lap. “I believe your story.”
“Yes. I believe that you believe every word of it – that is to say, I don’t believe you’ve made any of it up – and I see no reason why you would lie to me. There are certain…” he waves his hand in the air, as if trying to grasp the words. “There are certain ways to tell if a patient is lying to their therapist, and I don’t believe you are. Now, as far as all the Nazi stuff from earlier goes–”
“Um… I’ll be honest, I’m not really set on all that. I just… I don’t know what else would make sense. The Serpent just didn’t look like a natural thing. It looked almost… it looked alien.”
“Well,” Hilter says, crossing his right leg comfortably over his left and clicking his pen, “while you were out walking, I was doing some research, specifically on the Weis Ecology Center and the Wanaque Reservoir. I didn’t find anything about Nazis, which is probably a good thing, all things considered.”
“But, I did find some old reports of yoU-eFf-Oh sightings over the Wanaque.” Hilter shrugs. “I don’t want to load your mind up or anything, but um… let’s just say that some things are not meant to be totally understood by us mere mortals.” He drops Cooper a wink, and this time, Cooper catches it. “Let me ask you this: after having today’s experiences, do you feel more ready to move on from your brother’s death?”
“Yes,” Cooper blurts without letting even a millisecond go by. “Yes, I’m ready. When I first came here this morning, I thought being back home would make it easier, but it didn’t. It just… and, and then the walk back in the woods… I thought my brother died a really bad, really terrible death, but… I almost feel like a fuckin’ asshole for saying this, but he died a pretty cool death. I mean… he could have been abducted by that scary man. At least with The Serpent it was probably quick and painless, you know?”
Hilter smiles. “I do indeed, and I certainly don’t think you’re an asshole for saying so.”
“Thanks,” Cooper says with a little smile. “I don’t think I’m gonna come back, though.”
Hilter’s smile does not break. “Well Cooper, in your case, I believe that’s a good thing. This session has been… unorthodox, to say the least, but as long as we arrived at the proper answer, the formula we used doesn’t particularly matter. Hey, you aren’t still not hungry, are you? I think I smell that pizza.”
“You know what? Yeah, I think I could eat now.”
A Good Night’s Sleep
Cooper’s mom pulls into what used to be her own driveway a few minutes after Hilter finishes wrapping up the leftover pizza. After one last quick chat about how parents can be parents – “Trust me,” Hilter told him, “I know a thing or two about how nutty parents can be. Just be patient with them. They may not always act like it, but they do love you very much.” – Cooper calmly walks out the front door and across the lawn. He’s walking a little taller than he was when his mom dropped him off this morning, and when she asks him how the appointment went after he climbs into the back seat of the car, he tells her (without cursing, mind you) that it went well, that he doesn’t think he’ll need to come back, and that he’s accepted that David is resting in peace now. Also, he tells her he doesn’t think he’ll need to carry his dad’s knife around anymore. This last makes Cooper’s mom very happy, and you know what? It makes Cooper happy, too. For the first time since they moved out of the old house on Fricker Drive, Cooper is looking forward to a good night’s sleep.
Mister Hilter Odolf Williamson, on the other hand, is looking at a long, long stretch of night ahead of him. He has a lot of notes to type up from today’s double session, even all the Nazi stuff. It’s not that the Nazi stuff holds weight as far as reality is concerned, but it goes to show how the human mind will cling to the bizarre and fantastical when true reality is subpar in comparison. At the beginning of the session, Cooper was more than merely convinced that his hometown was harboring a troupe of Nazi scientists; after he went back into the woods and saw… well, whatever he saw… in other words, after he had a cathartic experience, he so readily and easily distanced himself from the fantastical in preference to true reality. Sure, he still believes his The Serpent is real, and he believes there is a strange man living in a ratty shack back in the woods he used to explore, but… in truth, Hilter believes that ratty shack may be real, as well.
In truth, Scotty Mells isn’t the only one who’s seen that shack in his dreams, that old ratty shack with the plywood door standing in a clearing at the end of a wide dirt trail somewhere deep in the forest. Hilter has seen it too, in fact Hilter has seen it many times, but not since he moved to Fricker Drive. Why did the dreams of the ratty shack stop when he moved to Fricker Drive? And why did he move out to Fricker Drive in the first place?
Hilter takes a deep breath. “I was just taking a drive and I saw the house was for sale, that’s all.”
But Hilter Odolf Williamson isn’t one to just take a drive, he’s more the type to go for a walk, he said it himself today. Was the shack in his dreams just a manifestation of his feelings towards the bungalow he used to live in up in New York? Or was he drawn to Fricker Drive by a metaphysical force of some sort? Was that random drive he took more than a merely convenient incident?
“Stop it,” he commands himself. “You’re thinking too far into it, just like the shit about the disappearing older brothers. It’s a coincidence. You have work to do. Get to it and go to bed, things will be clear in the morning.”
And so Hilter stops thinking and starts typing, and he doesn’t stop until the notes are transcribed. He does get to bed, much later than Cooper does, mind you, but he does get to bed eventually, and for the first time since he’s moved to Fricker Drive, Hilter dreams of the old ratty shack. There’s nobody living inside of it now; knickknacks and mundane decorative items are strewn about on the floor and piled up high in the corners. There’s what appears to be a section of a felled tree draped in a red tablecloth stood up in the middle of the room… and there’s something on top of it. Something egg-shaped, but it’s not the egg Cooper was talking about, it’s not glowing, it’s… it’s…
Hilter wakes up surrounded by bleak darkness. He checks the digital alarm clock next to his bed – three’thirty-three on the dot. His body is covered in sweat, he’s totally out of breath, his mind is spinning faster than it was when he was transcribing his notes.
“Just calm down, Hilter,” Hilter says to himself. “It was just a dream, it might not mean anything.”
‘But what if it wasn’t, what if it does mean something?’ says Hilter’s brain, which seems to have a mind of its own.
“If it wasn’t… well, then it will lead to something. Until then, there’s no point in pursuing a wild goose.”
‘Fair enough,’ grumbles Hilter’s brain. It is not very good, and it does not last the rest of the night, but eventually, Hilter does get to sleep.